Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years, you’ve heard a lot of claims about a lot of different diets. By now, there are a few things that most adults should be familiar with. Reducing caloric intake directly relates to weight loss. Fats and proteins take longer to digest while carbohydrates are turned into energy quickly and then stored if not used. Too much fat is bad. Too much cholesterol is bad. Fiber is good and whole grains are better than processed grains. However, there is one component to the American diet that isn’t mentioned often enough and that is sodium. What does the average American know about sodium? Are we getting enough? Too much? What are the consequences of too much sodium?
The amount of sodium recommended for an adult is 2,400 mg per day. The average American adult consumes around 4,000 mg a day. This over consumption has caused and will continue to cause serious health issues among adults and children. The most serious health consequences include hypertension, heart disease and heightened risk of stroke. However, what many people don’t know about sodium is that it can be considered a major cause of obesity, a disease that has increased dramatically over the last three decades. One article from the University of Helsinki puts the numbers quite bluntly. The average salt intake of Americans increased 50% from the mid 1980’s to the late 1990’s. In turn, a study completed in 2002 found the prevalence of obesity was 120% higher among men and 99% higher among women than when the study began in 1976.
Another medical article was compiled in 1993 by specialists at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Their findings explained how too much sodium can affect persons with a sensitivity to insulin. Because of lifestyle, diet and inherited health issues, type II diabetes is now a disease running rampant in the United States. The early stages of type II diabetes is a resistance or sensitivity to insulin. Essentially, the pancreas produces too much insulin for the body to use. Without any sugar to neutralize in the blood, insulin does the only other thing it knows how to do. It stores fat cells and thus, compounds the problem even further. Their findings tell us the following: “These data suggest that 1) high sodium intake may exacerbate insulin resistance by increasing circulating free fatty acids . . .” So, what does that mean for you? At this point, every American should try to limit their consumption of sodium, given the grave over consumption found, on average, around the country. However, if you are in any way at risk for type II diabetes, it’s especially important for you to cut back on sodium. If you’re overweight, have a family history, or have high blood pressure you are at risk. Additionally, adults with a rounded torso and very little waist definition are considered at risk. Also, check for dark skin around your waist, under your arms or on the back of your neck. This is often a sign of insulin resistance that’s already taking place, as are ‘skin tag’ or small pieces of excess flesh found around the neck.
Obesity is recognized as a major health concern and the weight-loss market has never had so many options and resources to help people lose weight. Many people practice good eating habits and live an active lifestyle but still can’t get the weight off. Other people are heavy simply because they have too much sodium to process every day. If you’ve gotten this far and recognize any of the symptoms, complications or difficulties with obesity listed above, you need to seriously consider cutting back the sodium content in your diet.
Aside from the very serious health issues implicated by diets too high in sodium, several less dangerous consequences exist as well. Too much sodium causes water retention that can lead to uncomfortable bloating and swelling. An obvious side affect is thirst that is difficult to quench satisfactorily. Kidney stones can also result from too much salt and your body needs far more potassium than usual to function properly with an overage of sodium.
So how do you effectively reduce your sodium intake? 75% of all consumed sodium is found in processed foods. Naturally occurring sodium only accounts for 10% of the daily intake in the diet of an average American adult. The easiest and fastest way to reduce your sodium is to cut out or greatly reduce highly processed foods. Additionally, things that are obviously salty, like chips, pretzels, and pickles can send your sodium levels soaring. Start reading labels and not just for calories and fat content. As a general rule, no single food item should have more than 400 mg of sodium per serving. Based on a three-meals-a-day lifestyle, meals should contain between 600-700 mg of sodium.
Sodium is everywhere and often, found in foods you may never have expected. Check the label on your frozen chicken breasts. If they’re frozen in the broth, they’ll have enormously high sodium levels. Things like packaged lunch meat contain nearly your entire daily allotment of sodium. If you enjoy eating meat on sandwiches, buy it fresh from the deli. Avoid drinking soda and sports drinks as they are full of both sugar and sodium, and the sodium doesn’t get cut out of diet sodas the way sugar does. Any canned foods are sodium culprits as well. Opt for low-sodium soups and buy fresh frozen vegetables instead of the canned variety. Many healthy frozen meals can have high sodium so be sure to check the label. With so much attention now on sodium, some brands are finding alternative seasonings. 2,400 mg of sodium is about how much is found in a single teaspoon of table salt. Make sure you go light on adding salt to meals at the table as well as in the kitchen.
The best way to reduce sodium is simply to pay attention to it. Keep track of what you’re eating and how much sodium you’re consuming. Restaurant meals often contain 3,000 mg if not more. Reduce the meals you purchase and cook small meals for yourself more frequently. Use other spices in your own cooking, like garlic powder (not garlic salt!), chili powder, Cayenne or black pepper, basil, cumin, thyme or rosemary. On items requiring salt, use it as sparingly as possible. Also, switch to sea salt. It has less sodium than regular iodized table salt and it also has more flavor. Snack on fresh fruits and veggies instead of chips and candy. Too much sodium can actually deaden your taste buds. Instead of enjoying a handful of berries, you’ll crave a salty treat instead. Cut out processed food and your taste buds’ appreciation of natural flavors will return.
Salt is simply the most abundant spice in the world, as well as the best natural preservative. In turn, it can be found in every single thing we eat. Your job is to cut it back to the appropriate amount. Keep checking calories and fat content in food, but make sure you glance at the sodium as well. Many foods have healthier, lower sodium options. If you’ve tried dieting and even tried some of those miracle weight loss plans, give this simple idea a try. So much more than just your weight will improve.